Prose Roundupby Erin Heath, Ben Mirov, Katrina Brewer, and Mayra David
Alice Feiring, The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization (Harcourt, 2008)
“When it comes to wine and love, I get attached,” writes Alice Feiring, Brooklyn-born journalist and author of In Vino Veritas. The debut memoir chronicles the blogger’s international travels through famous vineyards in the hopes of discovering what fuels the uber-commercialization of the industry.
The book follows Feiring as she visits vineyards throughout Europe and California, an admittedly far cry from her humble introduction to wine in her younger years, when she “was drinking Manischewitz mixed with seltzer.” During these stopovers, she speaks of the processes used to create—and to her dismay, manipulate—wines.
Feiring dedicates the work to her grandfather: “the very first winemaker I ever knew.” Samuel Avrech, a member of the Orthodox Jewish community, made wine in the basement of his home on Brooklyn’s East 92nd Street during Prohibition. Feiring notes that he “probably got his winemaking ideas from the Book of Genesis.” “If Pop were alive today I could give him my diagnosis,” reflects Feiring, “His grapes didn’t have enough of the good yeast.”
The inherent risk of failure involved in the winemaking process is what Feiring believes has led modern wineries to implement hi-tech processes that insure the production of a wine, if not the type she views favorably. Feiring’s Pop Avrech didn’t fear these risks, however, and neither, she explains, do the more old-fashioned winemakers who learned the art from their relatives and passed it down through generations: “They also know that natural yeast is a part of the terroir, that it carries the DNA of the vintage, the dirt, the climate, the vines, the grape, and the cellar, and that no wine can tell a story without it.”
Feiring advocates natural yeast and organically-grown grapes, a stance which pits her against mega-critic Robert Parker and the wine establishment. Carefully interweaving tales of her personal life within the framework of this larger issue, she manages to educate and entertain at the same time.
— Katrina Brewer
Etgar Keret, The Girl on the Fridge (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
Reading a story from The Girl on the Fridge can be simultaneously hilarious and breathtakingly sad. Composed of forty-six stories ranging from a paragraph to three or four pages in length, The Girl on the Fridge is a “best of” collection of Keret’s early work. Each of the stories contains a strong dose of surreal, incisive humor, and more often than not, a fair amount of charm.
It’s hard to form expectations about Keret’s writing except to know that each story will be entirely different from the last. Characters range from a monkey that refuses to speak to his human lover, to a woman infatuated with a man made of nothing, to a man who freezes time in order to have sex with beautiful women. Their outlandish, paranormal behaviors are justified by the vertiginous sociopolitical context in which they occur. The result is a catalytic blend of humor, violence, tragedy and absurdity.
While ostensibly humorous and quirky, The Girl on the Fridge embraces dystopian milieus with the dark flashes one might expect from a contemporary Israeli writer. Though themes such as obligatory service in the armed forces, horrific, often instantaneous violence, suicide and racism can be found throughout The Girl on the Fridge, they are tempered by humor and serve more as background than foreground. This is perhaps the most striking difference between Keret and more established Israeli writers such as A.B. Yehoshua, for whom the political is very much a part of the action.
Even if you are familiar with Keret’s acclaimed first book The Nimrod Flipout, and his 2007 movie, Jellyfish, this latest collection will reintroduce you to a highly enjoyable and innovative writer.
Richard Milward, Apples (Grove Press, 2008)
Apples’ two main characters, Adam and Eve, alternate in first-person narration of their up and down fifteen-year-old lives. Adam, a slightly obsessive-compulsive, awkward, Beatle-loving kid becomes more and more entranced by Eve’s blonde hair and curves. For most of the novel, he successfully ignores her multi-drug abuse and promiscuity. Eve monologues about boys, clubs, sex, girlfriends, and occasionally mentions her mother who suffers from a fatal case of lung cancer. Other characters pop in and out, ranting similar things.
The book’s extremely casual tone often abbreviates words to create a too-cool-to-say-the-entire-word effect (for example: possible becomes poss, holiday becomes hol). The speakers dismiss serious issues such as death, illness, and failing out of school, but they aren’t without emotion. In fact, emotion flies and sparks in unusual places throughout the novel, true to the strange fits of adolescence. The characters constantly try to find someone to snog, or are inwardly cursing their best friends. They laugh cruelly, and dramatize small matters. As far as transcribing the worries and ramblings of fifteen-year-olds, Milward manages, hilariously, the ridiculousness and the sincerity.
Milward’s prose is fast moving, packed with British slang, purposeful (cute) grammatical errors, and popular culture references, making for fun and light reading at first glance. But we soon find that the novel takes sudden dark turns into the realms of violence, rape, racism, and depression. But as suddenly as these heavier issues arrive, they depart. It is hard to say whether this quick pace is insensitive to these themes, lazy, or clever. Though their brevity strengthens their blows, the darker moments don’t meld with the light, peppy rhythm of the book.
For two pages, Milward tests his reader’s patience in a chapter narrated by Debbie, another friend of Eve’s, who suffers from Dyslexia. The entire thing is written backwards: “sdrawkcab no erew stnap sih yllatnediccA.” Debbie’s Dyslexia is never mentioned again.
The word “apple” is not used once in Richard Milward’s Apples. Could the apples = drugs, sex, boobs, thoughts, or the adolescent characters themselves? Fortunately, there is no apparent lengthy allegory to be pulled from the text based on the Creation theme expected from the characters’ names and the book’s title. Instead, the loaded names and apples function perhaps more as a gentle comical suggestion. Regardless, Milward accomplishes the famous British serious-but-not-serious tone throughout his first novel. The droll but truthful story brings light to the bleak dell of middle-classdom.
Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work (Random House, 2008)
These are the circumstances: The nation is in a tailspin. Morale—and the president’s approval ratings—is at a precipitous low. We are stuck in an economic quagmire. Protesters march, pleading for some show of humanity, yet their Republican president refuses to change course, banking on his version of the American Way to save the day. This era is aptly known as The Great Depression.
Though cursed with a somewhat unprepossessing cover, this scholarly book is actually a fascinating, often dramatic account of the life and legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Nick Taylor’s narrative is fast-paced and vivid, and gives a moving account of how America bootstrapped its way out of that dark economic and psychological place. Starting with the stock market crash of 1929 and the catastrophic, rampant rise in unemployment in the United States, he lays out the miserable route by which the Depression came about—a route riddled with stubborn politicians hopelessly clinging to their failed laissez-faire economic policies and aversion to government intervention.
Enter FDR and his efforts to revive the nation by creating government-sponsored work for laborers and artists alike through the WPA. While recognizing some criticism, Taylor’s sentiments lie with the accomplishments of the WPA—he’s a New Yorker, after all. During its eight-year existence, the WPA built innumerable institutions here, from public pools to LaGuardia Airport. More than that, it “totally changed the relationship between the government and the people.”
The book is not political. But it does celebrate the triumphant election of FDR, the democratic candidate in 1932, when contrasting party philosophies regarding what a government owed its citizens meant the difference between life and misery. It will defy anybody to discount the power of a compassionate, intelligent voice that was able to inspire a bedraggled nation—making people remember their own humanity and strength to effect change.